Artist Interview: Lydia Artymiw, piano

By Patrick Burke on May 5, 2014

Originally scheduled for Sunday, December 8th, the all-star group of Hiroko Yajima, Kim Kashkashian, Marcy Rosen and Lydia Artymiw was set to play works by DvoÅ™ák and Shostakovich. But, as we all remember, mother nature had other plans in store. As we approach the rescheduled date of Tuesday, May 20 I thought it would be nice to re-post my interview from November with pianist Lydia Artymiw.  Making her second appearance on our series this season Ms. Artymiw and I spoke at length of her two performances, her growth as a musician, playing with the Guarneri Quartet and her Ukrainian roots.

Patrick Burke:  Your concert on [May 20]  features mostly works by DvoÅ™ák, broken up by the Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, Op. 147. Could you tell us how the four of you decided on this program?

Lydia Artymiw:  The program came together in several stages. When Miles and Tony invited us to do this concert, their primary request was to feature a big piano quartet as the second half of the program. It was my idea to do the rarely heard DvoÅ™ák D Major Piano Quartet, Op. 23 because it is such a lovely work and so seldom performed. Rudolf Serkin used to champion the DvoÅ™ák D Major Piano Quartet, and the very first time I heard it was when he performed it at Marlboro in 1977. The extraordinary second movement Variations went directly to my heart, and I never forgot Mr. Serkin’s amazing performance. When I came back to Marlboro in 2001, I worked on it for several weeks with an excellent group, and we were fortunate to perform it at Marlboro. It’s been more than ten years since that performance, and I am really looking forward to playing it again and collaborating with Kim, Hiroko and Marcy.

Additionally, last year, Kim Kashkashian invited me to join her in a Music For Food Concert at New England Conservatory, and the DvoÅ™ák Piano Quintet, Op. 81 was the primary work on that program. Kim asked me whether there were any solo piano works of DvoÅ™ák I could also perform, so this became a new project for me. I ended up selecting this group of six DvoÅ™ák solo piano works for the concert in Boston, but I love them so much that I have also performed them in Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, China this past year. And with the DvoÅ™ák D Major Piano Quartet on this program, it made perfect sense to include them on this program as well.

Finally, it’s been such an honor and pleasure for me to do occasional recitals with Kim (we reconnected in 2004 and have been performing fairly regularly since then). The concert that brought us together was an invitation to perform the Shostakovich Viola Sonata at Bard College in August 2004. The Shostakovich Viola Sonata was his last composition before his death, and it is a very special piece. Kim’s profound understanding and marvelous interpretation of this extraordinary work have been so inspiring, and it was my hope and wish for us to be able to perform it for our Philadelphia audience.

PB:  As a pianist you have a wonderful perspective on this concert in that you will be playing as a soloist, accompanist and ensemble member. Could you discuss how you prepare to wear all three hats in one evening?

LA:  Actually, I’m really only wearing two hats because a duo sonata is also chamber music. Performing in a duo requires just as much careful listening, quick reflexes, sensitivity, awareness of balance, and true partnership as in a trio, piano quartet, piano quintet, etc. And the word “accompanist” is obsolete these days. The pianist is always both a collaborative partner and chamber musician. In fact, both solo and chamber worlds are intertwined in performance. The DvoÅ™ák solo pieces may be wonderful solo piano works, but they also have orchestral sonorities. Both the Shostakovich Sonata and the DvoÅ™ák Piano Quartet combine passages where the pianist is a soloist, along with the “accompanimental” passages where the pianist lends support and creates the sonic mood. Performing a concerto with orchestra is also a form of chamber music, and it is usually quite apparent when the soloist performs as part of the whole rather than just executing the solo part.

PB:  Along with this, there are the wonderful videos of you playing with the members of the Guarneri Quartet from 1988. Could you touch on what it was like to work with them, and how that experience shaped you as a musician?

LA:  As a young teenager, I first heard the Guarneri Quartet at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia around 1970. I’d never heard a string quartet before, and I was overwhelmed by their amazing energy and sound. It was incredible to hear the virtuosity, authority, and great musicianship of Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, and David Soyer, but equally incredible to hear how fantastically well they blended. I even remember thinking what an incredible dream it would be to be able to play one concert with them, and they became my idols for many years. That dream eventually became a reality, and I was so privileged and fortunate to perform over twenty times with the Guarneri Quartet (with David Soyer) and several times later when Peter Wiley took over as cellist. Hearing the Guarneri play live inspired me to listen to many string quartets, so my knowledge of the string quartet repertoire grew through listening to so many of the Guarneri’s recordings (which had a direct impact on my playing). For example, I recall studying the second Beethoven piano sonata Op. 2, No. 2 when I was about 14 or 15. The opening of the second movement must sound exactly the way a string quartet would play it, with the two violins and viola playing legato (in the right hand) while the left hand cello part plays pizzicati. The pianist must learn how to adjust the pedal, so that the pizzicati are always clear and to voice the primary melodic material in the right hand. Without the Guarneri’s inspiration, I would not have been able to even imagine this sound.

Performing with the Guarneri was always thrilling (and also challenging), and I cherish the memories of those performances as some of the musical highlights of my career. The videos on my website are “deleted scenes” that were filmed for the Guarneri documentary movie, High Fidelity, in 1988 in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the June Music Festival.

PB:  You’ll be giving the pre-concert lecture for this performance from the piano. What are some of the areas that you will focus on and what do you hope those in attendance will take from this?

LA:  The purpose of a pre-concert lecture is not only to speak about the works we’ll be performing but also to share my enthusiasm and love for these pieces with the audience. I always like to include biographical information about the composers and what events in their personal lives may have inspired them to compose these pieces. There are also special moments that I like to share with the audience, and it’s important to be able to articulate these both in words as well as in one’s playing. Hopefully the pre-concert talk will inspire the audience to listen more closely to certain details and to enjoy the performance even more. I don’t want to give too much away here, as I hope that the audience will come early to hear some of my lecture!

PB:  We’re lucky to have you performing with us twice this year. Besides your performance on [May 20] you will perform at the Philosophical Society on February 27th with a program including the Mozart K. 330, Robert Capanna’s Magic Numbers II: Reflections, the Schumann Op. 12 and selected works from Ukrainian composers. Spanning from 1783 to 2003, how did you select the works for this program, and can you tell us about your admiration for Ukrainian composers?

LA:  It’s such an honor to have these two performances for the PCMS series this season. Building a recital program is always a special challenge. I think that it is very important to offer a broad range of repertoire, and personally, I always like to include some repertoire that may not be well known. This program covers all of the bases:  the Mozart Sonata and Schumann Fantasiestí¼cke are well-known works and always wonderful to play. The C Major Sonata, K. 330 is one of my favorite Mozart Sonatas, and it provides a familiar opening for the audience. Robert Capanna’s Magic Numbers II: Reflections will be a startling contrast in every way. PCMS commissioned Bob to compose this piece in 2003, and I gave its world premiere for a PCMS concert in January 2005.  This twenty-minute work in five movements poses many technical and musical challenges, and I’m very much looking forward to performing Bob’s wonderful piece again.

The Ukrainian composers will be the novelty of this program. Both of my parents (Modest and Lidia Artymiw) were born in Ukraine and emigrated to Philadephia in 1951. Ukrainian music (like much of DvoÅ™ák's music) is rooted in folk songs and folk dances. For example, the “Miniatures” by Vasil Barvinsky are all based on very famous Ukrainian folk songs, and when I performed them in Lviv, Ukraine two years ago, the audience actually sang the words to some of them during my performance!

Both of my parents adored this music, and since both passed away in recent years, I am also performing these pieces in their memory. My parents faithfully attended every one of my performances for PCMS from 1990 until their passing, and I will imagine them in the audience when I play these short but incredibly expressive works.

Hiroko Yajima, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Marcy Rosen, cello; Lydia Artymiw, piano appear with PCMS on Tuesday, May 20 2014 at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information visit the concert page.

For more information on Lydia Artymiwplease visit her website.